There’s no surprise in mentioning that I spend a great portion of my time listening to the opinions and perspectives of characters I’ve altogether made up, and live nowhere but in the confines of my own brain. Writers understand this, but many others will doubtless find it slightly discomfiting and perhaps just odd. It happens. I can accept that.

I was just going through my LJ account, reading posts, trying to get a good idea of when the AG folks started up their conversations with me, and how long it took me to write their story the first time. It turns out I wrote it a lot faster than I thought: just over seven months, almost from start to finish. The first draft was done in March 2008, so I’ve already outspent my editing time rather heftily.

But the story has changed, and that isn’t my fault. I don’t have control over them sometimes. I swear.

Thing is, as I was perusing old posts, it occurred to me how odd it is to think that these characters once didn’t exist. Other than driving me to the near point of madness, this whole multi-POV approach has brought me closer to this batch of characters than through any other endeavor I’ve attempted before. And as such, they’re like friends, or personas, aspects of myself/themselves that I’m really comfortable with, familiar with.

I don’t think I’m getting this across very well, at all. Ah, well. At any rate I thought it would be amusing to post the piece I wrote the day after I was set on by this new menagerie of characters. It amused me, anyway.

August 7, 2007

So, today, in spite of the insane amount of work I’ve been doing as part of my job, I’ve been practically assaulted by a whole new series of characters. All throughout the day today, scenes and snips of dialog have been flitting through my brain.

In some ways, this is disturbing. I have a book. I have two books, in fact. This was not one of the ones I was planning on, but yet it’s like an itch I can’t scratch.

So, well, I sat down after things calmed down a little this evening, and began writing. Four pages ain’t bad at all. Then, I got to the end, and realize someone’s going to die. And die soon. And ugh. That’s a little depressing.

But anyway, I’m actually excited to write this. I was feeling the story in a way that hasn’t happened in a very long time. Michael asked me to go to bed, and instead of abandoning it, I said, “No! I’m at a really good part!” That’s pretty awesome.

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Mad ScientistMad scientists. Cooky engineers. Lunatic tinkerers. The figure of a maker of some kind is one of those essential ingredients in steampunk literature that, though it thoroughly amuses, often borders on the humorous if not cliche. For dissenters, the folks who think steampunk is ridiculous (though some of the language I’ve seen is considerably more forthright in tone), these characters are often the point of their frustrations. Why? Well, I think as steampunk has grown as a genre of literature–sometimes a part of fantasy and sometimes a part of science-fiction–it’s begun its own long line of stereotypes and archetypes.

While not everyone agrees with me, I tend to see steampunk less as an extension of science fiction and one more of both sci-fi and fantasy. Technology and magic blur anyway (what matters if teleportation is done with microchips or mysterious energy? same idea in the end). Steampunk’s fantastical elements aren’t always magic, either. There’s something to be said about the Victorian or pseudo-Victorian setting that’s as specific as fantasy settings.

To me, the mad tinkerer is much like the wizard in fantasy literature. Sure, it’s a tired archetype. How many sage, white-haired old men can there be, after all? I’ve picked up one too many books, excited at the prospect, only to be disappointed by the wizard character as just another rehashing of Gandalf. Gandalf is great. Just not a million times over.

So, how do we prevent our inventors from becoming hackneyed versions of the Wizard of Oz (there’s a confused genre for you)? Sure, there are plenty of historical analogues for this (from Newton to Einstein), but getting your steampunk tinkerer right means thinking–just slightly–out of gear.

  • The young, half-starved, mad with ideas inventor has been done. Try tweaking the age–maybe the inventor began this later in life, and found a propensity for technology.
  • As above, half-starved and poor? I smell cliche. How about from a normal family? Or a family that is well-to-do but not supportive of tinkering or inventing? Or someone from a religion, like a monk or a nun?
  • When there are female tinkerers, they tend to err on the side of tomboyish. How about a female inventor who’s just as feminine as can be–like someone’s mother? A mother who’s discovered her calling while staying at home with her kids–a true mother of invention!
  • Scientist? Alchemist? Tinkerer? Engineer? If none of these terms work particularly well, use your own. Stuck for ideas? I like the Online Etymology Dictionary, The Indo-European Roots Index, and Old Norse Online. Or, for an easy reference with research already done, there’s always Gary Gygax’s Extraordinary Book of Names.
  • The ingenue. Don’t have one. Or if you do, at least make an attempt to make her cool.
  • It’s a mad mad mad mad mad mad…. okay. I’m all for eccentricity. But science and madness do not have to go hand in hand.

***

Of course, that’s not to say my advice is law. I don’t even follow it all the time. My own tinkerer is in her 50s, tomboyish, a little person, and certainly a little batty in the brain. You don’t have to knock all the stereotypes to make for a good inventor, but you do have to spend some time thinking about what will set them apart from the crowd.

Behind the goggles, we all need to stand out.

Sir Ander\'s Doppleganger

This is Sir Ander’s first appearance. He’s the “younger knight”. More on his character a little later.

From Chapter Three: Blooming Day

Slowly, Cora stood, her skirts rustling as she did so, the petticoat snagging on her foot and letting out an alarmingly loud tearing noise. They were close enough to notice, and she heard both knights fall silent, and engage their weapons.

Her cover blown, Cora gripped the gun and twirled out into the hallway, leveling the weapon at the trespassers. Mustering all her courage, she said through numb lips: “Get out of my house.”

She must have sounded amusing to them, for both of the knights began to chuckle at her. Her chest tightened with mingled fear and fury—how could they laugh at her? And how could they take Brick? And Denna? Gods damn them.

There were two dark figures before her, illuminated from behind by the dim lanterns outside. One reached over and flicked on the gas lamp in the entryway, and his face came to life from darkness. He was perhaps twenty, and startlingly handsome. His round face was punctuated by a dimpled chin, and he had warm brown eyes that certainly weren’t as menacing as Cora had thought they would be. He smiled and held up his hands. Dressed in traditional knighting gear, he wore a long grey duster and a green vest beneath, a black kerchief tied around his neck. He carried silvered guns at his hips and, Cora knew, a host of other weaponry at the ready should he need them. His hat was wide-brimmed and set back on his head, letting loose a couple of free brown curls.

“Come now, lass,” he said. “Put the gun down. You don’t want to shoot your foot off; truly, we’re here on Queen’s business, so there’s no need resorting to violence.”

“People are screaming,” Cora said, the words spilling out of her mouth before she could stop them. Her arms ached as she held the gun out, straining under the pressure of fright. “If it’s Queen’s business then why in Hells is everyone screaming?”

“Resistance is a strange thing,” said the second knight, removing his hat. He was bald and missing an eye, but his ugliness would have been apparent even without the shortcomings. “Makes people resort to rather desperate options, I find. But that’s neither here nor there, lass. You best put the gun down and come with us. We’ve got a comfortable spot for you in the carriage.”

Cora flinched at the mention of the carriage. She squared her shoulders, concentrating on the green kerchief around the bald knight’s neck. Just like the green glass bottle on the fence post. “I am not going anywhere,” she said, willing her voice even.

The younger knight sighed, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. He moved a few steps closer to Cora, and she adjusted the gun from the bald one to him.

“You’re sadly outnumbered, dear,” he said, his tone dripping with condescension. As strange as it seemed, Cora was more frightened of the young knight than the old one. At first she had liked his eyes, but now they began to roam her body, to size her up. “You can shoot one of us, and if your aim is true, you still won’t have enough time to get the other down before you’re pinned down and forced to the carriage. Understand? The last thing we want you be is… damaged.”

ReginIt occurs to me that during yesterday’s very early morning post (this was before I even started work, people!) I missed out on a really fantastic comparison.

How could this be? Me, the writer? Missing a simile!?

Well, I should say, duh.

Yesterday during my Runes class (yes, I take a class on ancient Runes… and yes, that is super awesome) and we were talking about Regin and Sigurd, and how the sword Regin smithed was indeed the best EVAR, but it also took him three times to get it perfect (and good enough to slay a dragon, no less!).

So I realized, then, that gosh–the parallels in writing a novel and smithing are incredible. Yes, I’ve written novels before. And yes, they’re far from perfect. They would indeed “shatter” if used. But taking the time to edit, that’s like tempering the metal, refining it, making sure that it holds up.

And yes, it’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It’s physically and mentally exhausting. But in the end, the final product will be that much more durable, because I took the time to do it.

Sure, some people can learn a craft and do it flawlessly each time. But most of us mortals have to work really damn hard to get it right. Because if you care at all about your work–whether it’s swordsmithing, portrait painting, novel writing, or invention tinkering–you have to be willing to make it better. You have to be able to say, “I wrote this, but it’s okay if I delete it, because it’s not good enough.”

I suppose in a way, I have my own characters to thank for this insight, as obvious as it might have been. Brick and Cora appeared to me in a flash of clarity almost a year ago to the date, their faces as vivid as if I’d seen them across the room. And since then, they’ve taken me on quite a surprising journey. I’ve learned more writing The Aldersgate than any other work to date, and not just about the story, either. Working on The Aldersgate has given me new insight into myself, my soul, my work; I feel like I know myself better having gone through the process.

So maybe it’s not just the sword that gets tempered, but the smith, too.